Friday, August 31, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

This is something you don't see very often: The Louisville Courier-Journal re-commits to coverage of the arts.
In the weeks ahead, our “Arts” section, appearing in Sunday’s print edition and showcased on, will spotlight other influential performers, organizations, companies, troupes and theaters. You’ll instantly recognize many of the names. But in some weeks, we will introduce you to up-and-coming or new-to-Louisville arts-related groups that contribute to our cultural mix.
Louisville’s arts scene also means big bucks. It’s estimated our A&E “industry” has an economic ripple effect in the region of more than $450 million, providing jobs to thousands — from bartenders and waiters to parking garage operators, musicians and the performers themselves.
As we continue to make improvements in our print editions and digital offerings, know that we’re re-committing to a celebration of Louisville’s arts and cultural scenes.
This is something that should be taking place in most communities, but isn't. The trend in recent years has been for arts coverage to be eliminated almost entirely in most of the mass media. I was looking at a couple of Canadian newspapers recently and the featured articles in the "arts" section were about food, food and a children's book. Typical coverage is about films and film festivals, pop music and the occasional book review. What's missing? Actual performing arts by regional groups like the ballet, symphony and theater companies--just the people mentioned in the article linked to above.

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Here is an article suggesting that the whole story of the "riot" at the premiere of the Rite of Spring in 1913 was a myth:
Musicologist and program annotator Linda Shaver-Gleason has researched the Rite riot, relying primarily on Tamara Levitz’s chapter “Racism at The Rite” in the book The Rite of Spring at 100. Shaver-Gleason shared her thoughts on Not Another Music History Cliché, her project devoted to debunking classical music myths. “It’s definitely one of the big ones,” she told WQXR. “Especially when you have a music appreciation class. ‘This stuff is so exciting it caused a riot!’”
Dr. Tamara Levitz was my thesis advisor at McGill when I was studying musicology there and she is a dedicated researcher with a specialty in Stravinsky. This article, by focussing on specific terms, tries to underplay what was indeed an "event". As Richard Taruskin writes:
As those who know the story will recall, the protagonist of The-Rite-as-event was the audience, whose outraged and outrageous resistance to the work took everyone else by surprise, even if (as always) various parties claimed later to have foreseen or even engineered it (Jean Cocteau supposedly writing that the audience had played the part written for it; or Diaghilev saying, according to Stravinsky, that it was “exactly what I wanted”). 12 There are any number of reports and memoirs by eyewitnesses, including eyewitness who were not there. 13 The first night of The Rite, when, as Stravinsky laconically reported in a letter home, “delo dokhodilo do draki” (things got as far as fighting), 14 lives in history as a supreme succès de scandale, but it was in fact a fiasco, a rejection that would not be redeemed for many years. It left everyone, whatever their later contentions, with a sense of failure and letdown and loss.
Taruskin, Richard. Russian Music at Home and Abroad: New Essays (Kindle Locations 11961-11970). University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
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Here is a review of a new collection of essays on music by philosopher Roger Scruton:
There are many ways to write a philosophy of music—but two in particular stand out. One way is to approach music with the curious ear of the ethnomusicologist open to all the varieties of music around the world. This critic sees them as embedded in specific forms of life—and only really comprehensible when viewed within them—and so is careful not to treat any musical culture as a yardstick against which to measure the others.
The other way, now seriously out of fashion, is to regard western forms of music, especially the classical tradition, as central to what music is, or ought to be, or could be. The problem with this approach is that other forms of music are inevitably found wanting when compared with these majestic works. All that matters, for this kind of critic, is the inner state of the solitary listener, communing with a long-dead composer genius.
It will come as no surprise to learn that Roger Scruton’s new book Music as an Art falls into the latter category. Scruton is a doughty defender of western classical music, a stance which is of a piece with his doughty defence of conservative values in general. His rage against musical modernism is very like his rage against architectural modernism. It’s rooted in his belief that evolution is always better than revolution, and that the wisdom of ages is better than the fashion of the moment. For Scruton it is our task to conserve the culture bequeathed to us and pass it on to the next generations. We owe a debt to the dead as much as to the unborn.
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The new provincial government in Ontario is cutting funding for a Sistema-type music program:
The Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport have reneged on a promise of $500,000 in funding for an after-school music program for at-risk children. The half million dollars in additional funding was promised to Sistema Toronto by the previous Liberal government in May, before the provincial election. The announcement reversing the funding was made late last week.
Hilary Johnson, Sistema Toronto’s Managing Director, decried the move in a media interview. She emphasized Sistema’s value in a statement to a reporter for the Toronto Star, “After-school programming is huge in helping kids stay out of trouble,” she said. According to Johnson, most of the children in the program come from new immigrant families, and many are in foster care.
* * *

Also from Ludwig van Toronto comes this article on how classical musicians can avoid bad interviews:
Possibly the most awkward interview in classical music history took place back in 2011. Actor Alec Baldwin is the Radio Host of the New York Philharmonic, and he interviewed conductor Alan Gilbert during the intermission of a concert during the NYP season. The interview began innocently enough with a friendly talk about Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Then, however, Baldwin threw in a question about contemporary music, suggesting that modern composers were intentionally obtuse, and that the music was difficult to enjoy.
Gilbert bristled. “I completely disagree, actually. With both parts of your question.”
Cue awkward silence. Baldwin made a joke about the NYP staff’s research skills. Gilbert then threw the question back at Baldwin, and a clearly unprepared Baldwin gave a lengthy answer where he acknowledged, “an admitted prejudice where I think classical music has to be written in the 18th century. And certainly the 19th century. And some people in the 20th century.” More bristling.
It was not one of the award-winning veteran actor/writer’s better moments in the public eye. It’s also a classic cautionary tale that illustrates the fundamental principle of a successful interview: don’t go in unprepared. And second — avoid blurting out something you’ll regret later.
Actually, this sounds like it was an interview much more interesting than most. I have a problem with the way classical music is promoted. Just look at the abysmal biographies that accompany most program notes: dreary lists of competitions won and other milestones. Nothing to distinguish this artist from a host of others and nothing whatsoever about the aesthetic quality of the performer. Being boring and playing it safe is the problem with classical music, not the solution!

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This is really bizarre: Instagram is preventing livestream performances of classical music:

This can't be a copyright issue because the composers she mentions are all in the public domain. Coming after all the recent biases against conservative news and commentary by the Internet giants Facebook, Google and Apple, one wonders if there needs to be some kind of oversight? Read the comments for further details, plus some confusion!

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 You know that plan I reported on for broadcasting atonal music in public spaces to drive away drug dealers? According to Slipped Disc, it ain't gonna happen:
The plan to blast advanced modernism at Hermannstrasse station in order to drive away layabouts has been blown off track after 300 people attended a new music festival there this weekend.
Overnight, Berlin drug dealers were heard whistling Webern’s opus 27 as they measured out a toke and iTunes almost crashed over demand for Schoenberg’s fourth string quartet.
As if…. What killed the scheme was a protest from objection from the all-powerful German Music Council which said in a statement: ‘This attempt of instrumentalizing music in public space is unspeakable.’
So we guess it won’t happen.
As usual, the comments are a treat.

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Also via Slipped Disc is this video of Leonard Bernstein losing his baton in the finale of the Symphony No. 2 of Sibelius. Go ahead to the 6:28 mark to see what happens:

Actually, some orchestras have a contingency plan for this. One place I lived the principal cellist, who sat immediately on the right hand of the conductor, had to bring a replacement baton with him to very performance which he placed on his stand with the grip facing out. If the conductor lost his baton he just had to reach down for the replacement.

* * *

It feels as if we need more music in our post today! For an envoi let's listen to this Rondeau from Les Indes Galantes by Rameau.

That'll set you up for the day!

Monday, August 27, 2018

Understanding Psychology

I have had a strange relationship with psychology for most of my life. I think my first encounter was with a counsellor when my parents were getting divorced. I was around fifteen or sixteen at the time. I was interviewed and then given a test which in retrospect I think was the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. I just thought it was peculiar and no, the counseling didn't help my parents who got divorced anyway. The counsellor suggested that I was kidding around when I answered the questions! Then there was some kind of career aptitude test administered in high school. I did the test but never went to the counsellor's office for the results. I guess you could say I was aggressively uninterested! Later on, in my late 20s and 30s, I got interested in Zen, Chinese philosophy and Carl Jung, which led me to Karen Horney, a neo-Freudian who specialized in neurosis. I read a few of her books, but I seemed to get more neurotic with every one, so I developed an interesting theory about modern psychology: it's all crap!

For a few decades, therefore, I carefully avoided psychology, psychological gurus, the use of psychological terms and so on. Anytime anyone referred to their "ego" or "subconscious" or "id" or whatever, I just tuned out. Hey, it completely cured my neuroses because I no longer believed there was such a thing. Ok, this was a somewhat extreme view, but it worked very well for me. But then I encountered Jordan Peterson and now I have had to re-evaluate psychology.

Last night I was watching his September Q&A on YouTube:

He mentioned a personality evaluation test that sounded quite interesting so I signed up for it. Here:

If you watch the video you will hear that if you type "September" into the code field you will get a discount from $9.95 to $7.95. I think you might find it worthwhile to do. If I, very skeptical about psychology and a notorious self-analyzer, found it worthwhile, you might too. Unlike those free tests online, this one gives you a pretty substantial report. Mine came to nearly 6,000 words. Oh, so you want to know the highly-confidential results? Ok! There are five categories, each of which has two sub-categories:
  • Agreeableness: typical, 43rd percentile (which means I am slightly less agreeable than the norm) this divides into Compassion, 48th percentile and politeness, 38th percentile which is moderately low. Odd for a Canadian, eh?
  • Conscientiousness: moderately high, 72nd percentile, this divides into industriousness, 56th percentile and orderliness, 80th percentile.
  • Extraversion: high, 80th percentile, this divides into enthusiasm, 59th percentile and assertiveness, 88th percentile, which is why my mother could never tell me what to do!
  • Neuroticism, typical, 42nd percentile, this divides into withdrawal, 41st percentile and volatility, 43rd percentile.
  • Openness (to experience): exceptionally high, 96th percentile, this divides into intellect, 86th percentile and openness, 96th percentile.
So obviously I have to get working on that composition!

For an envoi, let's have a piece I wrote for violin and guitar. This is Cloudscape with Claudia Shiuh, violin and myself on guitar:

Friday, August 24, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

There is a lot of dispiriting news out there, much of which I will try and avoid on your behalf! But once we eliminate the outing of randy organ professors and the obituaries and the rediscovery of very obscure operas by composers not known for being opera composers like Franz Liszt, what do you have left? Well, there is this item: new politically correct criteria for Opera North in the UK: Only BAMEs need apply to Opera North. For those of you unfamiliar with the nomenclature, "BAMEs" are people of "black, asian and minority ethnic" backgrounds.
Opera North is seeking applications from music-makers from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds living in the north of England, for its second programme of Resonance residencies, supported by the PRS Foundation.
Launched in 2017, Resonance offers professional artists in all genres the opportunity to develop new performance ideas. Successful applicants will receive up to a week of free rehearsal space in central Leeds in March and April 2019, a grant of up to £3,000 to cover fees and other costs, support and advice from technicians, producers and other specialists, and an optional ‘work in progress’ performance.
As is usual with Slipped Disc, the comments are worth reading. But it should be pointed out that these kinds of initiatives are typically defended by saying that diversity and balance, by which they mean some close correspondence between the percentage of the population that are members of a particular group and the percentage that are working in a particular field, are desirable. But as Jordan Peterson, among others, has pointed out, you can approach all questions of merit and competence from the perspective of either the individual or the collective. If you choose the latter you are simply reverting to tribalism. For a very succinct discussion go to the 11:45 mark in this clip:

Koroliuk and his ensemble ignited a debate about cultural appropriation after a routine where dancers performed Indigenous dance in clothing resembling traditional regalia.
"If you ask me if I regret when I created Kaleidoscope, if I would do it again — I would do it again. 
"That was my way to say thank you … and be proud and try to build bridges instead of walls."
The Kaleidoscope dance included segments from French, Scottish and other cultures as a tribute to Canada's history.
Koroliuk said at the time that the dance was created to honour Indigenous people. But it faced backlash on social media after a video was posted online by an Indigenous powwow dancer who was watching from the crowd.
"Cultural appropriation" is just another ill-conceived consequence of political tribalism.

* * *

I have to say that those stories of commercial establishments and malls using classical music to discourage undesirables from hanging out have always made me a bit uncomfortable. The idea that Mozart and Vivaldi actually drive people away is rather disconcerting. On the other hand, there is lots of music that, if played in public spaces, would certainly be enough to drive me away. Most of the stuff I hear in public spaces, in fact! But this story is a bit different: Berlin station turns to atonal tunes to deter drug users.
Germany's national rail operator, Deutsche Bahn (DB), is planning to pipe "atonal music" into the Hermannstrasse station in Berlin's Neukölln district in an attempt to drive away people who use the place to take drugs.
I found this item via Slipped Disc where we can find the usual entertaining comments! The concern is expressed that perhaps atonal music will actually attract drug dealers.

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For a really sizzling comment section, have a look at this item: To Those Who Pretend That El Sistema Is Unpolitical.
Sometimes one is stupefied by the willing myopia of classical music administrators. The recent history of Venezuela has shown El sistema to be an instrument of a terror regime in Venezuela that is reducing many citizens to the choice of starvation or emigration.
Yet useful idiots in western democracies continue to pretend that El sistema is politically neutral, untouched by politics and of overwhelming (if unproven) benefit to mankind.
The quote is from Norman Lebrecht and you can find many agreeing and many disagreeing in the comments. It seems obvious that El Sistema has had excellent musical results. The question is, how compromised is it through association with an undeniably vicious regime in Venezuela?

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 From the BBC we have this item: Can Data Reveal the Saddest Number One Song Ever?
Spotify has built an algorithm that aims to quantify the amount of sadness in a music track. The streaming service has collected metadata on each of 35 million songs in their database, accessible through their web API, that includes a valence score for every track, from 0 to 1. “Tracks with high valence sound more positive (eg happy, cheerful, euphoric), while tracks with low valence sound more negative (eg sad, depressed, angry)”, according to Spotify. There are similar scores for other parameters including energy (how “fast, loud and noisy” a track is) and danceability, which is exactly what it sounds like.
The first problem here is that many readers will see the word "valence" and think, wow, this is really scientific! In reality the term "valence" comes from chemistry and biology and simply has no meaning whatsoever with regard to music. The mystery is how do they come up with a numerical score for musical qualities and who assigns it?
But how can an algorithm – which cannot feel a thing – tell the difference between a happy song and a sad one? “It’s an initially challenging concept, that you would be able to quantify the sadness that a song evokes”, says Charlie Thompson, the data scientist who developed the Radiohead ‘gloom index’ who blogs as RCharlie.
Nope, no actual explanation there! It turns out that the "data" doesn't actually do the job:
The saddest song ever to top the charts since 1958, according to the data, is The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by Roberta Flack, which was number one for six weeks in 1972. It is not a sad song. It is a tender, soulful love song.
So I think we can heave a sigh of relief that Spotify has not yet succeeded in "datifying" music.

* * *

Alex Ross has a review of an interesting new book on contemporary music in The New Yorker titled "The Sounds of Music in the Twenty-first Century."
Writing overnight history is a perilous task, but the British critic Tim Rutherford-Johnson manages the feat in “Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989” (University of California). In fewer than three hundred pages of cogent prose, Rutherford-Johnson catalogues the bewildering diversity of twenty-first-century composed music, and, more important, makes interpretative sense of a corpus that ranges from symphonies and string quartets to improvisations on smashed-up pianos found in the Australian outback (Ross Bolleter’s “Secret Sandhills”). By the end of the book, definitions seem more elusive than ever: to compose is to work with sound, or with silence, in a premeditated way, or not. What, then, isn’t composition? Conversations around the term often focus on either erasing or redrawing the boundary between the classical and the popular. Rutherford-Johnson makes us think about other borders: between genres, between ideologies, between art and the world. “Music After the Fall” is the best extant map of our sonic shadowlands, and it has changed how I listen.
Here is another bit from the review:
The seventies and eighties saw the gradual return of tonally based composition, in the form of minimalism, the New Simplicity, and the New Romanticism. These developments aligned with postmodern trends in other art forms: the return of ornament in architecture, of figuration in painting, of episodic narrative in fiction. The first work that Rutherford-Johnson discusses in his book is Steve Reich’s “Different Trains,” from 1988, which incorporates a live string quartet and a digital soundtrack of speaking voices, prerecorded string tracks, and ambient sounds. Its chugging motion and repetitive gestures present an invitingly smooth surface, even as the recorded material pivots toward stories of the Holocaust. The piece typifies the late-twentieth-century return to fundamentals—what McClary describes as “composing for people.”
Sounds like a book well worth our attention.

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Most musicians are neither famous nor wealthy and the reason is that only 12% of music industry revenues go to musicians:
There are more people who want to make art than the market would support, and the arts are a highly concentrated industry: combine those two facts and you get a buyers' market for artists' work, controlled by intermediaries, who take almost all of the money generated by the work.
This is true in lots of industries, but it's especially pernicious in entertainment markets, because copyright helps fight competition. Once an intermediary corporation (like a record label) captures an important part of the distribution market, it can demand that artists sign over all or some of their copyrights as a condition of being distributed by the company. 
When Big Content met Big Tech, the deal was sealed. The highly concentrated tech sector and the highly concentrated entertainment sector may squabble over how much of the money from art goes to which industry, but they're both in firm agreement that as little as possible of that money should go to the artists who created the work that they're selling.

* * *

The American Scholar has an article on one of the most famous public aesthetic disputes in recent musical history: Who’s the Boss? When conductor and soloist clash, a concerto performance can turn into a contest of wills.
For a conductor to address an audience prior to a concert is nothing out of the ordinary. But for that conductor to essentially disavow the performance, before a single note is played? That would be almost unthinkable. And yet, this is precisely what happened at Carnegie Hall on April 6, 1962, at a matinee concert of the New York Philharmonic. Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein were scheduled to perform the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms, but after intermission, only Bernstein emerged onstage. Gould, who played infrequently in public, was notorious for canceling concerts at the last moment, and at first, Bernstein had to reassure the audience that the afternoon’s soloist was indeed in the house. Then, the conductor went on to deliver a highly controversial speech that has since become part of musical lore:
A curious situation has arisen, which merits, I think, a word or two. You are about to hear a rather, shall we say, unorthodox performance of the Brahms D Minor Concerto, a performance distinctly different from any I’ve ever heard, or even dreamt of, for that matter, in its remarkably broad tempi and its frequent departures from Brahms’s dynamic indications. I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould’s conception, and this raises the interesting question: “What am I doing conducting it?” I’m conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith, and his conception is interesting enough so that I feel you should hear it, too.
But the age-old question still remains: “In a concerto, who is the boss: the soloist or the conductor?” The answer is, of course, sometimes one, sometimes the other, depending on the people involved. But almost always, the two manage to get together by persuasion or charm or even threats to achieve a unified performance. I have only once before in my life had to submit to a soloist’s wholly new and incompatible concept, and that was the last time I accompanied Mr. Gould. But this time the discrepancies between our views are so great that I feel I must make this small disclaimer.
Go read the whole thing, which has all sorts of interesting observations.

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 For our envoi today, let's have a listen to Different Trains by Steve Reich. I gave a lecture on this piece once and in preparing it, I really came to appreciate a lot of what he was doing. It is a far cry from his early "minimal" compositions.

This version is interesting because you can distinguish between what is prerecorded and what is live. But for those who really don't like Steve Reich, and that's ok, here is something I have listened to several times this week. It is just so gorgeous! The Flower Duet from Lakmé by Delibes sung by Sabine Devieilhe & Marianne Crebassa. I have already posted this, but it is such a lovely example of musicians at work doing what they do that I can't resist putting it up again!

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Attending a Chamber Music Concert

Saturday evening I am taking some friends to see a chamber music concert with the Fine Arts Quartet. Here is the program:
Mozart: String Quartet No. 19
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 11
Debussy: String Quartet
I often go to these with a violinist friend, but on this occasion I am also taking another friend and her two children, aged eight and ten. So that will be a bit different. Usually I sit with a musician crony and we mutter to one another about how they are over-shaping the dynamics or  something. On one occasion three of us (myself, a violinist and a cellist) were listening to a bassoon trio play a piece that was not on the printed program, nor had they announced it. At the end we all looked at one another and said in unison: "Hummel!" You know, I think it actually was Hummel.

But at least three of the attendees on Saturday will be both less familiar with the repertoire and certainly a lot less catty! So I was thinking, what might I say to my friend and her kids about the music? While certainly cultured, I don't think she is a chamber music aficionado as when I said that the Fine Arts Quartet was playing she said, "oh, good, a fine arts quartet." No, I replied, the Fine Arts Quartet. Which sounds unutterably pompous, I know. But hey, I worked hard to get this pompous.

So, ok, time to put my musicology, or at least my teacher, hat on. Listening to this music is like taking a journey--not to a strange and unfamiliar land, but to a strange and unfamiliar mind and time. It is to enter into the inner person of someone who lived in a different place and time. Let's start with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who lived in the 18th century. He was one of the most unusual people who ever lived. Every time you hear something about a really gifted child today, someone who astonishes us with their ability, they are really following the example of Mozart. He is the first famous child prodigy in music history. We may marvel at a young singer who can sing opera arias at age twelve, but by age twelve, Mozart was already famous throughout Europe and had already written two operas! Oh yes, and many, many symphonies, piano sonatas and so on. He had to hurry as he was going to die quite young, at thirty-five. He started composing at five years old. He lived in Austria, first in Salzburg, a not very big town about the size of our town, where he worked for the Archbishop, a very powerful fellow. Then he moved to Vienna. He also traveled a lot with his father, to Germany, England, France and Italy where he was commissioned to write an opera for the big theater in Milan, La Scala. The string quartet we are going to hear, so famous it has a nickname, the "Dissonant" Quartet, was written when he was just short of his twenty-ninth birthday. It is called "dissonant" (meaning with notes that clash in the harmony) because of its very adventurous harmonies in the slow introduction. It is so unusual that when he sent it to an Italian publisher they wrote back and asked him to fix the "misprints"! Here is the Hagen Quartet, playing in Salzburg.

We go to an even stranger place with the second piece, the quartet by Dmitri Shostakovich. He lived his entire life in what was the Soviet Union, now Russia. Russia is a country with a very strong creative tradition in music, just think of composers like Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, but times were very difficult between the Revolution of 1917 and 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and became Russia once more. Much of Shostakovich's life was under the horrific rule of Joseph Stalin who persecuted, starved and executed millions upon millions of his own people. As music was so important to the Russian people, Stalin took a particular interest in the career of Shostakovich, who was the leading Soviet composer. Shostakovich's music was condemned on a couple of occasions which meant no performances and no commissions for quite a while. He lived in constant fear of being shipped off to a Siberian concentration camp. He had lost in-laws in that way and even had friends in the theatre world simply executed. For years he kept a packed suitcase by the door in case the secret police came for him in the middle of the night. His Quartet No. 11 was written in January 1966 which  puts it between two of the best albums from the Beatles: Rubber Soul and Revolver. What we hear in the string quartet is the experience of fear and paranoia somehow transcended through music and Shostakovich's unique sardonic humor. And we experience this from the inside! This is the Allegri Quartet.

The music of Claude Debussy is quite different. While Mozart is all elegance and charm and clarity and Shostakovich is all dark, threatening moods, Debussy's music is diaphanous (meaning delicate, airy, like translucent fabric), lustrous (meaning filled with light) and colorful. He uses the instruments to create landscapes of beauty. Debussy was French and lived in a world of aesthetic refinement when Paris was the artistic center of the world towards the end of the 19th century. His main struggle in life was against the ingrown conservatism of the French musical establishment, typified by the Conservatoire where students had to follow a formidably academic course of instruction. Once past that hurdle (he spend eleven years at the Conservatoire) he blossomed into a very fine composer, much loved by audiences ever since. This is the Esmé Quartet from South Korea playing in Norway.

Aztec Death Whistle

Yes, I'm looking around for items for tomorrow's miscellanea, why do you ask? I just ran across this article about an Aztec musical instrument: The Aztec Death Whistle Makes One of the Scariest Sounds You'll Ever Hear.
We're not going to lie. The sound of the death whistle is the most frightening thing we've ever heard. It literally sounds like a screeching zombie. We can only imagine what it would be like to hear hundreds of the whistles from an Aztec army on the march. We're not entirely certain what the whistles were used for, however. They may have been used as an intimidation tactic in war, but there's one aspect of Aztec society in which they certainly played a role: human sacrifice.
In 1999, a 20-year-old sacrificial victim was discovered by archaeologists, clutching a death whistle in his hands. He was found in a temple to the wind god Ehecatl at Tlatelolco, suggesting to some scholars that the whistles were meant to evoke the howling wind. In any case, modern musicians and anthropologists have grown more interested in the role the whistles played in the ongoing indigenous history of Mexico.
Hm, well, if that is the most frightening thing the author ever heard, I suspect he is not familiar with the electronic music of Karlheinz Stockhausen or Edgar Varèse:

On the other hand, this does give us some insight into why the Spartans marched to the sounds of flutes: maybe their flutes were more scary than we thought!
Marching in step, while perhaps known to other Greeks, was particularly associated with the Spartan army. Famously, their troops at Mantinea advanced towards the Argive army with a slow rhythmic pace to the sound of many flutes, not for a religious reason, as Thucydides explains to his readers, but in order to maintain a steady pace and to prevent the ranks from breaking up, which tended to occur in large armies (5.70).
From here.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Music and Value

Last year a commentator alerted me to the brilliant scholar and critic Pierre Ryckmans who used the pen-name Simon Leys. Since then I have been slowly working my way through his collected essays: The Hall of Uselessness. Except for the outstanding quality, one of his essays, titled "Writers and Money" is very like something I might have written for this blog. He modestly says that his essay has no other purpose than to quote Hilaire Belloc on the topic. Let me offer a slightly abbreviated version:
...there is no relation between the function of letters and the economic effect of letters, there is no relation between the goodness and the badness of the work, or the magnitude of the work, and the sums paid for the work. It would not be natural that there should be such a relation, and in fact, there is none.
The truth is missed by people who say that good writing has no market. That is not the point. Good writing sometimes has a market, and very bad writing sometimes has a market ... Writing important truths sometimes has a market; writing the most ridiculous errors and false judgements sometimes has a market. The point is that the market has nothing to do with the quality attached to writing. It never has and never will ... The relationship between the excellence or the usefulness of a piece of literature, and the number of those who will buy it in a particular form, is not a causal relationship, it is a purely capricious one.
This is a truth that has often eluded me. I have long puzzled over the fact that, despite their enormous commercial success, the Beatles actually created some music of high quality. On the other hand, despite their enormous commercial success, musicians like U2 did not. In the classical world, a composer as brilliant and original as Igor Stravinsky has long enjoyed an enviable success and prominence while other brilliant and original composers like Olivier Messiaen, while well-known, are much less celebrated.

The classical music world is perhaps slightly less capricious than the popular one, or at least it used to be. Music critics used to perform the role of bringing musical talent to the awareness of the public as Robert Schumann did with Chopin. But that occurs less and less often as the machines of marketing take over. Typically what we read and see in the mainstream media is no more than an uncritical puff piece serving as promotion for an upcoming album or tour. Also typically, musical value is these days reduced almost entirely to the sole criterion of sales figures. Artists that sell a lot of copies are celebrated and ones that don't are scarcely noticed. This is starting to erode aesthetic standards in the classical world as well as marketing and promotion take their inexorable toll. The only amelioration is in the area of grants and awards that are sometimes based on sober aesthetic evaluation (but often not).

On the other hand, I keep seeing hints and traces of the objectivity of aesthetic judgment. A simple anecdote: yesterday I was in a meeting with several people and before the meeting began we were chatting about some upcoming chamber concerts. One person, a non-musician, said how much she liked Brahms. I disagreed, saying that his music was over-worked and tedious. She looked quite surprised as, well, Brahms is really well-known, how can you be critical? Then another fellow, a jazz pianist, interjected saying that he agreed about Brahms. To which I said, "more evidence of objectivity in aesthetics!" I have noticed this over and over that musicians often have an unstated common judgement about performers and composers and particular pieces that differs from that of the general public.

Some examples? Most musicians that I have talked to rate Haydn just as highly as Mozart, something not the case in the public view. They rate Debussy over Ravel as well. There are very well-known performers that are known to most musicians as simple hacks, but I will forgo mentioning their names!

I don't want to overstate the case, but objective aesthetic judgment is not a chimera, even though it is not always easy to sort out. If you go back and read the Hilaire Belloc quote you will see that the simple fact of good and bad in an objective sense, underlies his whole argument.

How about an envoi? We haven't had any Messiaen for a while. This is his Catalogue d'oiseaux, Book I, for piano, with the score. Yvonne Loriod is the pianist.

How about another one? This is the Flower Duet from the opera Lakmé by Léo Delibes sung by Sabine Devieilhe & Marianne Crebassa:

Delibes is not nearly as celebrated as the composers he influenced, including Saint-Saëns, Debussy and Tchaikovsky.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

If Only It Were True!

I have posted a lot of times about the odd claims about music that come out from time to time. But now TDAmeritrade, an online brokerage owned by the Toronto Dominion Bank, has done an interesting sort of survey: Your taste in music says a lot about your bank account.
The richest Americans may be way more likely to listen to classical music — which could include Beethoven, Mozart and Bach — than the rest of us. Indeed, those who listened to classical reported that they raked in an average income of more than $114,000 per year, compared to just $58,000 for country music fans (the lowest of those measured), according to a survey of 1,500 millennials released this month by TDAmeritrade. TD Ameritrade said that it believes this finding will hold true for all age groups.
I suppose this is good news, if true. It means that board members of classical music organizations like symphony orchestras and opera should be able to find affluent patrons. Yahoo! It is also interesting that it was millennials that were surveyed. Why do they think that this would hold true for other age groups? Not stated, so perhaps doubtful.

But then the brief article goes on to cite some other research that is certainly doubtful:
Indeed, listening to classical music may help improve your academic performance, according to a study published in the journal Learning and Individual Differences. The researchers found that 
students who listened to an hour lecture with classical music playing in the background 
scored significantly higher on a quiz on the topic, than did those who didn’t hear any music.
The reason that lectures are typically NOT given with classical music (or any other kind) playing in the background is because it is a bad idea. Any extraneous sounds like music, construction, traffic, jets flying overhead, would be distracting if you were trying to focus on what a lecturer was saying. This is why university campuses are so typically quiet. If we were given more details we might be able to see how they got these odd results. The article ends with yet another study with the opposite results:
Of course, there’s also plenty of research to show that classical music isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Some research, for example, has found that silence is actually the key to being productive.
So, points for mentioning a contrasting view. The real truth is that statistics are very often highly misleading due to a host of factors: small changes in the way surveys are presented can lead to widely differing results. Different questions give different findings. In contexts like the above, different classical music can lead to hugely different results. Imagine, for example, that the subjects heard a lecture with loud Stravinsky as opposed to muted Vivaldi. Different results? You bet! Whenever I hear the claim made that listening to Mozart makes infants smarter I always say, "ok, now let's redo the experiment with Bach!"

The question that really nags at me is why an online brokerage would be surveying millennials about their musical taste? What if they discovered that the richest among them were, instead of classical fans, actually country music fans? What are they going to do? Change their on-hold music? Offer a country music ETF built around Martin Guitars? It's kind of inexplicable.

Let's wind this up with some Vivaldi. This is violinist Rachel Podger and Arte dei Suonatori playing "La Stravaganza" Concerto no.2 in E minor, RV 279 by Antonio Vivaldi:

Friday, August 17, 2018

No Snobs Allowed!

I saw this just too late to include in my miscellanea today, but perhaps it deserves its own post. Over at the Washington Post, reviewer Anne Midgette offers the counter-argument to Jay Nordlinger about whether classical music should be relevant or "popular."
Classical music aficionados: Go away. This article is not for you. Instead, it is for everyone who sees classical music as a private club and who feels they’re standing outside the clubhouse. It’s for those who have been to one or two orchestral concerts but are still not quite sure what they’re supposed to be getting out of the experience.
Well, I think we will stick around anyway, Anne! I taught music for thirty years, everything from beginning guitar lessons to chamber music to advanced music appreciation and theory, so I have some understanding of how people experience music. You know, listening to music is like a lot of other human activities: we normally and naturally participate in it without doing any kind of rational analysis. I think it was Jean Piaget that pointed out that a group of children typically invent games to play, but if you were to take them aside and ask them to describe the rules of the game, they would be incapable of doing so. So it is with music. I get an astonishing amount out of the experience of listening to, say, Mozart, but the task of describing exactly what it is I get is so formidable that I would be reluctant to even begin. The idea that one should be sure what one is getting from the experience of music is one of those common but idiotic ideas that plague public discussion of the arts.

Thankfully, after that opening obligatory condemnation of "snobbery" (better described perhaps as competence?), Anne goes on to suggest some basic pieces to listen to:
There are a lot of journeys to choose from. Pick one of the nine Beethoven symphonies (I love the third and the less-popular fourth), and add to your plate gradually, choosing from the smorgasbord of the Western canon: Brahms’s Second; Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, Mahler’s Fifth; Bruckner’s Seventh, and into the 20th century with Shostakovich’s Fifth.
Ok, nothing wrong with that. But won't she fall afoul of all the "woke" musicologists by even mentioning that there is such a thing as a "canon"?
The term “classical music” is an inaccurate catchall for everything from solo piano works to Gregorian chant to contemporary instrumental sextets with electric guitar.
That's true, but the unmentionable element that makes some music "classical" and other music "popular" is its durable aesthetic value. Anne Midgette bows to the other icon of "diversity" by including as many pieces by women composers as possible:
Then there are trios: string trios, like Mozart’s stunning Divertimento in E-flat; or piano trios, written not for three pianos (a common misconception) but for a piano and two stringed instruments. Schubert’s two are among my favorites, and I bypass Robert Schumann’s in favor of the nice one by his wife, Clara Schumann.
I kind of agree with that last because I tend to dislike Robert Schumann's chamber music. Sure, I have reasons for doing so, but I will save that for another time.
3. Classical music is relaxing. I don’t actually agree with this statement, but because a solid 75 percent of my friends who aren’t classical aficionados espouse it, I’m going to cede the point and offer you a few options for background music that take you beyond Vivaldi and Mozart.
Here is an important point: I am with Anne on this. Classical music, like all great art, should not (cannot) be relaxing. That reduces the challenge of art down to sonic medication. All I can say is that the people who look to music for this and nothing more don't really get it. Towards the end of the article Anne offers a decent thumbnail of the nature of classical music that pretty much contradicts what she said in the first paragraph: it turns out that classical music does demand more focus and attention than other musics:
I don’t buy that classical music corners the market on feelings or emotions. But classical music does make a particular kind of musical statement, often immersive, often longer than other forms and often in a particularly complex manner that involves the juxtaposition of different voices. Like a novel, it’s not something that can be apprehended quickly or conveyed in any other form; like a novel, you have to meet it halfway and think about what it is or isn’t saying to you, listening to the different sounds it offers, recognizing the reemergence of earlier themes, weighing the pauses and the crescendos — and, rather than worrying about what you’re supposed to get, thinking about what you do get.
 As a little envoi, let's listen to a singularly unrelaxing piece of classical music, the third movement of the String Quartet No. 3 by Shostakovich played by the Emerson Quartet. Fasten your seat belts!

Friday Miscellanea

The classical album of the week over at The Guardian is Esa-Pekka Salonen's new recording of Stravinsky's Perséphone. This is a less well-known work, but from the glowing review, one worth making the acquaintance of:
Radiant beauty is not a quality that is automatically associated with Stravinsky’s music. But in Perséphone, the “melodrama” for tenor, female narrator, chorus, children’s chorus and large orchestra that he completed in 1934 to a text by André Gide, he composed one of the most radiant and lyrically beautiful scores to be found anywhere in 20th-century music. It’s one of Stravinsky’s greatest achievements, and alongside his opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, one of the high points of his neoclassical period, though perhaps because of the forces it requires and its curious hybrid nature – part ballet, part cantata – performances and recordings have always been rare.
Coincidentally I have been working my way through the Sony box of seven CDs of Salonen conducting Stravinsky and I want to highly recommend his interpretations. He has a wonderful sense of pacing and orchestral balance and, above all, clarity. The Guardian reviewer concurs:
As Esa-Pekka Salonen’s beautifully modulated performance demonstrates, however, those inconsistencies do not matter at all when the music is unfolded with such meticulous attention to detail. Nothing is forced, and all the elements, sung, played and spoken, are integrated so carefully.
* * *

Sadly, the music world lost a unique voice this week; Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin passed away at seventy-six.

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Slipped Disc keeps us informed about all sorts of facets of the world of music, including who is sponsoring whom: Yuja Wang and Rolex. Follow the link for a clip. That one won't embed, but here is another one. The weird thing about this one is that they have eschewed Yuja Wang's piano playing in the background music in favor of the most dreary orchestral pablum which entirely eliminates Yuja Wang's aesthetic agency.

Does anyone else find these marketing promotions creepy?

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No Friday Miscellanea would be complete without a little controversy and this certainly qualifies: New Music Festival is Accused of Israel Bias. The festival is Donaueschingen and the issue is the refusal to commission a work about the 2008/9 Gaza conflict. Go read the whole thing, but especially the many comments.

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This year is marked by centenary celebrations of both Leonard Bernstein and Claude Debussy, but who is winning the contest for performances? Go to Slipped Disc for some comments.

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The New York Times reports on the Bard Music Festival and in the process offers a reconsideration of Rimsky-Korsakov:
The Bard Music Festival, which began last weekend and continues through Sunday, makes the case for a reappraisal, with a series of performances and lectures that illuminate his role in forging a Russian national style. In the estimation of Richard Taruskin, the eminent musicologist who spoke at one of the opening weekend’s events, Rimsky-Korsakov — a Russian naval officer who came to write 15 operas and taught Stravinsky — deserves better than to be belittled as a “craftsman who does trivial things exceedingly well.” In Mr. Taruskin’s estimation, he is nothing less than “the most underrated composer in history.”
It was reading Taruskin that alerted me to the importance Rimsky-Korsakov played in the musical development of his student Igor Stravinsky. Rimsky-Korsakov was a member of the "Mighty Five" group of Russian composers who were all of them basically self-taught amateurs:
In 1871, he accepted a professorship at the fledgling St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he found himself having to teach fundamentals of music theory he barely understood. “I was a dilettante and knew nothing,” he later wrote in his autobiography. For the next three years, with an admirable combination of humility and diligence, he set about teaching himself counterpoint, composing dozens of fugues, and poring over scores by Bach, who had been a particular target of disdain among the Mighty Bunch.
The reviewer takes a very odd approach, elevating "shame" as a prime motivator in Russian nationalist music which doesn't quite ring true for me.

* * *

 The Smithsonian has an interview with Jay Nordlinger about the irrelevance of "relevance" in great art:
Does art need to be relevant to a person’s life in order to be appreciated?
That’s the buzzword of the day, “relevant.” I think it’s one of the great nonsense words of our time. What does it mean? The Bach B Minor Mass is great. Is it relevant? I don’t know. It’s great. Is greatness relevant? Relevant to what? I think art can be liked and loved and appreciated. It instructs us and consoles us and thrills us and lifts us up. But this mania, this fashion, this fad for relevance is bizarre.
It’s a perversion of art. I think it goes hand in hand with attempts to politicize art. A lot of people think that if something isn’t political, it doesn’t really matter. I suppose that’s what they mean by “relevant.” What’s the relevance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? Brotherhood? Well, that symphony is a lot more than that – beyond our power to put into words.
There are a lot of other interesting things in the interview.

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 Great musical organizations are usually the product of the vision of a particular creative mind. They can easily be reduced to run-of-the-mill institutions by managers who lack that vision. Such seems to be the fate of the Oregon Bach Festival. This review constitutes a kind of obituary:
Judging from the seven events I saw this year, OBF 2018 was below the standards of years past. Nothing distinguished it from an ordinary lineup of classical fare. No artistic vision unified the schedule or oversaw the standards of performance. Engaging with how a particular conductor thinks about music was no longer possible for devoted audience members. Following that conductor’s musical talent (first Rilling, then Halls) from year to year and piece to piece has been the most important feature of OBF. With the absence of a world-class musician heading the festival, I felt a profound artistic void.
* * *

Unfortunately I can't find a clip on YouTube of Salonen conducting Stravinky's Perséphone, but there is a nice one of Petrouchka and Orpheus. This is from the 7-CD box I mentioned before.

Monday, August 13, 2018

iPads and Scores and TV Interviews

A couple of interesting items this morning. First of all, according to Slipped Disc, the Orchestre National d’Ile-de-France is giving all its musicians iPads to replace the traditional printed parts in performances. This is a very cool idea, of course. Music notation works best as a constantly scrolling stream, an option common with music software. Page turns are just awkward. I have seen string quartets using iPads or laptops instead of printed parts a few times. Mind you, on one occasion there was an interesting problem. You typically have a little foot switch you use to turn the page. On this occasion, due to some Bluetooth error, the cellist was discovering that every time the violist turned his page, the cellist's page turned as well! In the comments to the Slipped Disc post one musician mentions that it ain't gonna be easy to change fingerings or bowings in rehearsal! There is something to be said for paper easily edited with a pencil and an eraser.

Kanye West always manages to make the news and a little controversy came out of his interview on Jimmy Kimmel this past Thursday. Here is the interview:

I found a few things interesting. West has a kind of childlike demeanor with occasional bursts of wisdom. For example, I liked his comment that "in this world we live in there are two main motivating forces--that's love or fear." That's not a bad thing to keep in mind. It reminds me of one of Patton's sayings, "never take counsel of your fears" which apparently he stole from Stonewall Jackson. In any case, it is good to remind ourselves from time to time, not to be ruled by our fears. Of course, there are other motivating forces and Kanye mentions pride. Another couple are greed and curiosity. I think curiosity is a really important one, often left off lists of virtues.

Kanye is a musician and designer so the way he thinks is probably not primarily in terms of verbal logic, but rather visual or musical logic. He mentions that he is not about politics or policy, but about not being afraid to say something outside what is supposedly permitted for an African-American (his term). This was the character of his response when Jimmy Kimmel brought up Trump. At one point Kanye says "we could have a dialogue about the President and not a diatribe." He then goes on to say that love can cure hate and so on. Then Jimmy Kimmel interrupts with the usual litany of leftist criticism (or perhaps, more accurately, smears) of Trump: tearing families apart, how he cares about nobody, etc. Kimmel really wasn't listening, was he? This was the jarring, inappropriate element. We didn't use to insert our political ideology into every corner of life--there was a time when we would have thought that demanding that a rapper defend the political policies of a current administration was absurd. I suspect that time was not that long ago, either.

What I really liked about Kanye's reply was that there wasn't one. Soon after they went to a commercial break and he never answered the "question." These kinds of things are really not actual questions are they, but rather ideological traps? The National Post had a piece on it where they reported on Kanye's tweeting that he wasn't stumped by the question but was thinking how best to answer and then was cut off. That is a very polite way, perhaps, of saying, that the nastiness of the question was simply embarrassing. There is a word we rarely use these days, but it keeps coming to mind: this kind of verbal interaction is really impertinent, rude, disrespectful, not only to the person being criticized, but also to the interview guest. In my experience, there are really only two ways to handle this kind of argument: either stop them in their tracks before they have a chance to hurl much, or simply refuse to engage. Kanye chose the more politic way.

Now let's have something to clear the palate with. Here is a really lovely piece for guitar by perhaps the greatest guitar composer of the 20th century, Joaquin Rodrigo. It is too long to be a short piece and too short to be a long piece, so it was not included in my recent top ten lists. Which is why I want to mention it now. This is the Invocation and Dance by Rodrigo played by Pepe Romero:

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Music and the Feng Shui of Wine

I really don't have a tag for this one! A commentator just sent me an interesting link about a Chilean winery that uses Gregorian chant to age its wine better:
With a mission to revitalize the production of quality Chilean wines, Montes founders Aurelio Montes and Douglas Murray discovered the use of music, specifically monastic chants, enhanced the taste of their product.
“There are studies that prove that soft vibrations make the liquids perform a better aging than in silence or with strident music,” says Montes. The Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh performed one of those studies specifically for Montes' Aurelio wine in 2008. Researchers found that red wine taste was altered 40 percent by powerful and heavy music, and 25 percent by mellow music. Drinkers rated white wine more refreshing when music considered “zingy and refreshing” was played. Other winemakers are following in the steps of Montes, including Chilean Juan Ledesma of Terroir Sonoro, who plunges music speakers directly into the barrels. 
The imaginative techniques employed by Montes Wines extend beyond the innovative use of cymatics (or wave phenomena). The entire winery was built with the principles of feng shui in mind. All the basic elements—think water, metal, wood—are incorporated into the design, with water flowing from outside the winery into a fountain at the center of the building. In the feng shui tradition, water is deemed the ultimate symbol of abundance, and the careful placement of the lily-shaped fountain is intended as a way to connect the building with the prosperous energy of the universe.
That sounds fascinating! I'm wondering what would happen if you aged some fine Canadian ice wine with Shostakovich string quartets? They are about to perform the String Quartet No. 11 in an upcoming chamber music festival concert. This is the Allegri Quartet:

Friday, August 10, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Tim Cook, CEO of the first trillion dollar company, Apple, worries about "the humanity being drained out of music." Here are some more thoughts:
“I couldn’t make it through a workout without music,” Cook says. “Music inspires, it motivates. It’s also the thing at night that helps quiet me. I think it’s better than any medicine.”
Dude, I worry that you are draining the aesthetics out of music. Ok, you work out to music, it quiets you down at night, it's inspiring and it's motivating and it's like a medicine. Is it also a bit like music? I get that it revs you up, it calms you down and it's medicinal. It just doesn't seem that there is any music in your music. The music that I think is music really doesn't do any of those things, or only secondarily. It worries me that a lot of people listen to music the way Tim Cook does.

* * *

This is cool: a workshop for people wanting to compose for film: Learning from Hollywood's best at a film scoring workshop.
My focus has been, for many years, trying to elevate or at least maintain the level of quality and respect for people who compose music for film and television and games,” said Richard Bellis, who has led the program for 21 years.
The 12 selected applicants spend a month in L.A. under the guidance of Bellis, Emmy-winning composer of the 1990 miniseries “It,” who crams in a year’s worth of education. Each attendee is assigned a scene from an existing film and given a week to write a piece of original score. They orchestrate the music, with insight they gain hearing from pro musicians, and work with established music editors on fitting the piece to film. They learn part preparation as their scores are prepared by JoAnn Kane Music Services, the best in the business.
They’re coached in the interpersonal skills needed for collaborating with directors, podium procedure and running a big-budget recording session. They also meet with music supervisors, concertmasters, agents, studio executives and A-list composers.
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Ever since I began this blog several years ago, I have seen reports of the reconstruction of ancient Greek music. Finally, they all say, finally we have rediscovered what ancient music actually sounded like. And then you listen and it sounds like music from North Africa or modal fusion or, worse, something by Carl Orff from Carmina Burana. And so I read the latest claim without much hope: Ancient Greek music: now we finally know what it sounded like.
In 1932, the musicologist Wilfrid Perrett reported to an audience at the Royal Musical Association in London the words of an unnamed professor of Greek with musical leanings: “Nobody has ever made head or tail of ancient Greek music, and nobody ever will. That way madness lies.”
Indeed, ancient Greek music has long posed a maddening enigma. Yet music was ubiquitous in classical Greece, with most of the poetry from around 750BC to 350BC – the songs of Homer, Sappho, and others – composed and performed as sung music, sometimes accompanied by dance. Literary texts provide abundant and highly specific details about the notes, scales, effects, and instruments used. The lyre was a common feature, along with the popular aulos, two double-reed pipes played simultaneously by a single performer so as to sound like two powerful oboes played in concert.
Despite this wealth of information, the sense and sound of ancient Greek music has proved incredibly elusive.
The more I read, the more I suspected that these researchers and performers were on the right track. Here is a clip that explains their approach and demonstrates the results:

Still, all we have are a few fragments out of the whole corpus of Greek poetry, all of which was set to music. But these performances have an authenticity to them that is promising. And they sound nothing like North African music or Carl Orff!

* * *

It is never easy being an artist, but this seems a bit extreme, even in these benighted days: The Chinese Government Destroys Ai Weiwei's 'Zuoyou' Studio.
It's been just seven years since the dissident artist was arrested and incarcerated in a secret location for 81 days. (The government suspected him and other activists of trying to start a "Jasmine Revolution.") Ai also had his passport confiscated and was forced to pay a steep fine of $2.4 million after authorities charged him with tax evasion.
Now Ai has posted several Instagram videos of his "Zuoyou" studio being destroyed without warning over the weekend. As he explained in one video, he had worked in this Beijing studio since 2006. Ai tells NPR that some of his art was damaged in the process, as he had not been given any time to prepare.
* * *

Cellist Jinging Hu had an unfortunate experience flying with her cello even though she had purchased a seat for the instrument: Cellist ‘humiliated,’ kicked off American Airlines flight after buying ticket for instrument.
When Hu boarded her return flight to Chicago Thursday, she was told to get off the plane, WBBM reported.
Hu said flight staff told her that the cello was too big, and the aircraft was too small to hold the cello.
She said she was escorted off the plane by law enforcement, even though her instrument met the seat size restrictions.
I'll be purchasing a seat for my guitar on a flight to Toronto in December so I really, really hope this does not happen often. It is not easy traveling as a musician these days.

* * *

Deutsche Grammophon has signed a deal with Apple Music to have playlists curated by classical music artists. Sounds pretty interesting.
Deutsche Grammophon has signed a longterm deal with Apple Music to have classical playlists curated by major artists.
For today’s launch at Salzburg, the pianist Daniil Trifonov, tenor Rolando Villazón and cellist Peter Gregson curated Apple Music’s three main composer stations: Mozart, Bach and Beethoven.
The DG Playlist will be regularly updated to include videos by DG stars. Check it out here.
Further plans include the first full visual opera on Apple Music – Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette from Salzburg 2008 with Rolando Villazón, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin – along with a Salzburg video playlist, including the Mozart Gala in the composer’s 250th-anniversary year, featuring Anna Netrebko, Magdalena Kožená, Thomas Hampson, Daniel Harding and the Vienna Philharmonic.
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Hey, we've all been there! A woman in Slovakia was arrested for playing Verdi loud to drown out a neighbor's barking dog: Woman detained in Slovakia for playing Verdi for 16 years. I played Stravinsky loud at 6am once to retaliate for a barking dog. Just once, mind you.
According to Hungarian news site, the woman, identified only as Eva N, played a four-minute aria from Giuseppe Verdi's 'La Traviata' non-stop, in her house with on speakers full blast, from morning until night. says that the homeowner in the southern town of Sturovo played the music for years to drown out a neighbour's loud barking dog, and had simply continued doing it.
Residents poured out their anger to local media, furious that the high volume harassment had been allowed to go on for so long.
Police in Slovakia sure seem to take their time responding to noise complaints.

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Wednesday night was Grigory Sokolov's Salzburg recital which I had put in my calendar back when I thought I might be attending this year. There was a thunderstorm, as often happens in Salzburg in August, and the sheer volume of rain caused a leak in the Grosses Festspielhaus:
At last night’s recital by Grigory Sokolov in the Grosses Festspielhaus at the Salzburg Festival, as Sokolov was into the trio of the final menuet of Haydn’s 49th sonata, nearing the end of an all-Haydn first half, water began to pour from the ceiling onto the patrons in the 5-8th rows, center.
I was sitting in the 1st row, directly in front of Sokolov, and was reluctant to turn around, not wishing to distract him…but of course the water was coming down loudly, as if from a large showerhead, pouring from one of the light fixtures high overhead, and it’s hard to believe he didn’t hear it. Nonetheless, I never saw so much as a glance or any other sign he was aware of the deluge – his commitment to the music was absolute – and his performance appeared in no way affected by the fact that roughly two dozen people had to get up right in front of him and quietly file out.
After a slightly longer than customary intermission, during which the leak was stopped, the floor mopped, and dry seat cushions provided for the affected patrons – several of whom did not return – the program resumed with a stunning Schubert D.935, plus the usual generous complement of wondrous encores, six in all. The fourth of these was – naturally – Chopin’s ‘Raindrop’ prélude.
* * *

Ross Douthat has a column at the New York Times about the battle between technocratic ambition and humanism. Spoiler: humanism is losing. the end neither a Christian humanism nor any other has been able to withstand the spirit of Conant, the spirit of technocratic ambition, the spirit of truth-replaced-by-useful-knowledge, that rules today not just in Washington and Silicon Valley but in much of academia as well. 
...this trend is sharper among elite liberal arts colleges, the top thirty in the US News and World Report rankings, where in the early 2000s the humanities still attracted about a third of all students, but lately only get about a fifth. So it’s not just a matter of the post-Great Recession middle class seeking more practical degrees to make sure their student loans get repaid quickly; the slice of the American elite that’s privileged enough and intellectually-minded enough to choose Swarthmore or Haverford or Amherst over a state school or a research university is abandoning Hermes for Apollo at the fastest clip.
Douthat offers some thoughts on the deeper cause of the problem:
That problem is the one that Auden identified seventy years ago: In an Apollonian culture, eager for “Useful Knowledge” and technical mastery and increasingly indifferent to memory and allergic to tradition, the poet and the novelist and the theologian struggle to find an official justification for their arts. And both the turn toward radical politics and the turn toward high theory are attempts by humanists in the academy to supply that justification — to rebrand the humanities as the seat of social justice and a font of political reform, or to assume a pseudoscientific mantle that lets academics claim to be interrogating literature with the rigor and precision of a lab tech doing dissection. 
I have certainly noticed both these trends: on the one hand the continual invasion of the "diversity and inclusion" warriors and on the other, the pseudo-scientific attempts to explain how music works. From my point of view, music really doesn't need either of these remedies, but I guess I have a minority view.

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Though I have posted about her before, I am really not that familiar with the work of composer Missy Mazzoli. The San Francisco Classical Voice has a nice article about her.
Mazzoli’s musical accomplishments include a notable performance career with her own ensemble, Victoire, and premieres of a variety of works with classical organizations from Opera Philadelphia (Breaking the Waves, 2018) to the L.A. Philharmonic (Sinfonia, 2014), as well as collaborations with more cutting edge performers and composers such as percussionist Glenn Kotche (Vespers for a New Dark Age, 2014) and cellist Maya Beiser (Salt, a “mini-opera,” 2012). Currently on the faculty of Mannes College of Music, Mazzoli makes for a new kind of role model, a working female composer who is creating works on her own terms and receiving prestigious commissions and high praise from top critics. Recently, Anne Midgette of The Washington Post dubbed her “less a black sheep than a sacred cow: the ‘it’ girl of the contemporary scene.”
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 Let's listen to some of her music for our envoi today. This is the quite lovely Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) in its European premiere at the BBC Proms last year. The performers are the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Karina Canellakis.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 15

Sofia Gubaidulina continued to be regarded with animosity by the Soviet authorities. She was invited to attend a special fiftieth birthday concert in her honor in Dusseldorf in 1981, but was refused permission and when musicians from Moscow tried to perform her music in concerts in the West they were routinely eliminated from the program. Gubaidulina continued to be inspired by religious themes and her next major work follows from that and from hearing a performance of Haydn's unique piece the Seven Last Words of Christ in an arrangement for cello and strings by her friend Vladimir Tonka. Gubaidulina's piece is for cello, bayan and strings. You will recall that the bayan is a type of Russian chromatic button accordion often used in folk music.

For Gubaidulina the cello is associated with Christ on the cross and the bayan with God the Father while the orchestra represents the Holy Spirit. The work was premiered at a concert on October 20, 1982 as part of the fourth "Moscow Autumn" festival. This performance was not entirely successful, perhaps because of its placement in the overlong program and the performers scheduled another outing in the Spring as part of a program of works entirely by Gubaidulina. Since then it has seen a host of successful performances. This one is by Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello; Geir Draugsvoll, bayan and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra:

One aspect of Gubaidulina's approach to music that I have perhaps not emphasized enough is her work with the improvising trio Astraea. After Victor Suslin, one of the members, emigrated to West Germany in 1981, the trio dissolved. But in 1983, as part of another all-Gubaidulina program, she organized a group improvisation in which the role of each performer was determined by the Chinese book of changes. If you recall, one Western composer also used this book, the I Ching, as a compositional tool--that was John Cage. Here is a photo of Gubaidulina, Laurel Fay (author of a biography of Shostakovich) and John Cage in Leningrad several years later, in 1988.

The problem with a composer like Gubaidulina is that you might ask her for some short piano pieces and receive instead, much later, a fifty minute piece for soprano, baritone and seven string instruments. Such was the case when she wrote Perception, a thirteen-movement piece that explores the relationship between male and female concepts of art and between human beings and God. After two years hard work on this piece, a staff member at Sikorski, the Soviet publishing house, told her that the piece would likely not be published due to its length and troublesome texts. The piece as a whole is not available on YouTube, but the separate movements are. Here are the first three:

At this point, Gubaidulina, fifty-two years old and with very little recognition or success in her own land, is having some rather dark thoughts.